In an anxiety fantastic sequence in an episode of The simpsons, young Lisa Simpson imagines herself playing the saxophone at a rock concert as the audience bombards her band with mockery. She snaps out of the reverie asking, “Why would they come to our concert just to boo us?”
This scene came to mind while watching the first forum of the still young leadership contest of the United Conservative Party of Alberta. It was organized by Free Alberta Strategy, a fiercely anti-Ottawa group, and moderated by Rob Anderson, a lawyer and former MPP.
Anderson and his group tout the Alberta Sovereignty Act, a plan for Alberta to systematically refuse to uphold or enforce any federal policy or law that it believes hampers the province’s interests, jurisdictionally or otherwise.
The fact that seven of the top eight UCP leadership candidates are joining that group’s political forum suggests that they may have been keen to embrace this idea of sovereignty, which Anderson himself says would go to against the Supreme Court of Canada and trigger a constitutional crisis.
“I don’t think that’s a bad thing,” Anderson said in an interview, referring to constitutional crises. “A lot of good things can come from crises.”
Most leadership contestants, however, came to the forum to boo his idea. Rajan Sawhney said that while the authors of the idea consider it overtly political and unconstitutional, “it looks like a signal of virtue and a distraction”. Then Rebecca Schultz: “We can’t just not follow laws we don’t like.”
Brian Jean, despite having “self-reliance” in his campaign slogan: “If you don’t have the rule of law, then you’re headed for tyranny” (a point that law professors University of Calgary also raised this week). Travis Toews said “creating chaos” would set back Alberta’s economic growth, and it continued.
The reigning sovereignist
But Danielle Smith had come to applaud. The former Wildrose party leader (who, alongside Anderson in 2014, crossed the floor of Jim Prentice’s Tories) isn’t just a fan of this sovereignty law – she’s already declared it her priority from the first day. Smith thinks Alberta could use this tool to protect Alberta from everything from the Emergencies Act to vaccine rules to internet content regulation.
“It’s our job to make sure we take care of business and take care of our people,” she told the forum. She added, in apparent reference to the legal quagmire the bill is meant to cause, “I’m a kind of person who believes in asking for forgiveness rather than asking for permission.”
The only other candidate to show warmth toward this crisis-friendly legislative initiative was far less prominent: Todd Loewen, a rural MLA exile of the UCP caucus. In other words, the rest of the UCP field doesn’t just cede this explosive idea to Smith; they say it is detrimental to the province.
There are two recent paths these provocative ideas have taken in political contests. There’s Kellie Leitch’s pitch to the 2017 federal conservative contest to screen immigrants with a values test — from which its rivals quickly moved away. Leitch finished a distant fifth.
Then there’s Donald Trump’s proposal to build a border wall and somehow make Mexico pay – which his main Republican rivals quickly walked away from. He won the White House.
With just three months until a new UCP leader and prime minister is crowned, it’s unclear what trajectory Smith’s bold idea will take. While it is clear that she has separated herself from the pack and that there has been a much more aggressive appetite for action among Conservative activists in Alberta towards Ottawa than by Jason Kenney federal-provincial pugilism.
Meanwhile, the other tactical example that Smith’s camp no doubt has in mind is that of Pierre Poilievre, in the current federal leadership race. His unconventional schemes that channel angry moods and challenge established institutions, such as his rampage of the Bank of Canada leadership, apparently have him dominating the race.
Smith also embraced other Free Alberta strategies early on, those that also appeared in the infamous 2001 Alberta Firewall Letter: creation of the police force and the pension plan of the province, as well as separate collection of the provincial income tax. For nearly two decades, Ralph Klein’s conservative prime ministers ignored these ideas, until Kenney hit his Fair Deal Panel to consider them.
Kenney’s panel discouraged the tax collection proposal, as did most UCP leadership candidates at the forum, because it creates costly bureaucracy and duplication for individual filers. The police and pensions ideas have received a warmer welcome from many of these would-be prime ministers, but have generally been cautiously shelved and call for more consultation before proceeding, as polls have consistently demonstrated Albertans’ distrust of these major changes.
Smith declares more eagerness to erect these firewall boards, seeing a separate police force and tax office as going hand in hand with the challenge created by the Sovereignty Act.
In the front
Travis Toews’ endorsements by much of the caucus and his high profile as Kenney’s former finance minister make him an establishment favorite and a perceived frontrunner.
But as much as a movement of anyone but Toews is about to be born among those who despise the UCP establishment, there have been seeds sown amid criticism of Rob Anderson’s ideas during this forum for a movement within the party against the extremes of Smith’s positions – much as developed in the CCP leadership debates with Poilievre.
Whispers from party insiders suggest that Smith is an early contender for Kenney’s crown. There is a similar signal in their efforts to avoid his larger plan for a Smith government. Did they all come to Rob Anderson’s event just to boo her?